The city of Nice will go down in Icelandic and English sporting history – for polar opposite reasons. In the final round of 16 match, minnows Iceland came from a goal down to humiliate England 2-1.
Iceland were looking to create a footballing sensation and continue an unlikely run that had won over the sympathies of many Euro 2016 viewers. England were seeking to win a European Championship knock-out match for the first time in a decade and avoid an upset that would add a new and particularly painful entry to a lengthy catalogue of footballing ignominy.
The match started with a bang – more precisely: with a pair of them. Clearly concerned with not letting the underdogs into the game, England pressed right from the get-go and won a penalty in minute 3, after Iceland keeper Hannes Halldorsson brought down Raheem Sterling. Veteran English captain Wayne Rooney did the honors from the spot.
It was a perfect start for the Three Lions who were probably still celebrating when Island leveled only two minutes later. Einar Gunnarsson heaved the ball into the England area from the touchline, and it was headed on to Ragnar Sirgudsson, who smashed home from point-blank range.
The match then settled into the expected: England with nearly 80 percent possession, Iceland with gutsy defending and long speculative passes with they did get the ball. And the latter proved more effective. In minute 18, a moderately paced Kolbeinn Sigthorsson shot wriggled under Joe Hart, and the underdogs were suddenly ahead. It was a classic bit of English goalkeeping slapstick.
It took England ten minutes to recover. Daniel Sturridge put a ball into the box for Harry Kane to volley, but Halldorsson got a hand to it. And that was it for clear English chances in the first half. Iceland took a spectacular lead into the dressing rooms.
No inspiration, not enough perspiration for England
England replaced Eric Dier with Jack Wilshere, but Iceland continued make life difficult for them. Sigurdsson could have increased the underdogs’ lead ten minutes after the restart, but his adventurous bicycle kick went straight at Hart.
With an hour to go, England coach Roy Hodgson brought in Jamie Vardy for the anemic Sterling, but the Three Lions lacked a plan to get the ball to him or any of their other attacking players. Meanwhile, Iceland continued to swarm around like gnats, if there were such a thing as determined, bearded, tattooed gnats, which seemed to unsettle Rooney in particular.
The England captain produced one embarrassing mishit after another. It wasn’t until minute 78 that England generated anything resembling a chance. A floating Wilshere lob found Kane, but the striker couldn’t get anything behind his header.
Gunnarsson could have sealed the sensation seven minutes from time when he won a challenge with Wilshere deep in England’s half, but he couldn’t put a close-range shot past Hart. At the other end, England supporters booed Kane when he blasted a promising free kick well out of bounds with only three minutes left.
England had a last-second chance at an equalizer, but a ball sailed inches over the head of a well-positioned Vardy. England’s humiliation, however, was anything but unlucky. Iceland were the superior team in terms of hustle, physicality and even inspiration and deserved the 2-1 victory.
That result spelled the end of Hodgson’s tenure at the head of the English national team after four years.
The result will surely kick off a flurry of Brexit jokes about the English national team. For their part Iceland get to play hosts France in the quarterfinals after a night no one in Nice will soon forget.